Television and School Performance brief glance at the publishing history of books about the effect of television on academic performance makes one thing clear: there was a boom in interest in the topic in the 1970s, and a lot less now. Information about the subject seems much more extensive in recent and current periodicals, however.
There are two possible conclusions this dearth of academic research, along with a relative wealth of popular writing, can lead two. The first conclusion is this: the detrimental effects of television-watching on academic performance are so well recognized that researchers no longer see it as worthy of in-depth research.
The second conclusion is the more jaded view: television networks (many of which own both book publishing companies and periodicals) and their advertisers have put the damper on any such undertakings, except in the most cursory manner.
Whatever the reason for the relative paucity of recent hard information about the effects of TV on academic performance, this also is clear: TV does affect the lives, behaviors, and cognitive skills of children in a classically negative way. Classically negative? If one wants to measure academic achievement by ability to read and comprehend, and possibly create original written/spoken work, then TV's effect is negative.
If, on the other hand, one wants to posit a new realm of learning/behavior, electronic literacy, then perhaps TV isn't so negative. But although few academics seem to be researching TV's effect on children at the moment, neither are the great bulk of them ready to consider TV-viewing and its attendant 'skills' to be a new platform of academic endeavor. (Some would think considering TV-watching an academic skill to be at least as ludicrous as some other ideas about television have been.
In the early days of television, it wasn't the brain some doctors worried would be affected; it was the body. "By 1951...at least one doctor dolefully predicted that children would have stunted feet from too little walking" after TVs became ubiquitous.) (Inge 324)
Setting aside the ludicrous possibility that TV-viewing is, itself, an academic skill, then there is evidence, developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that in fact, TV viewing does impede academic progress. Published 13 years ago, Carmen Luke's book, Constructing the Child Viewer: A History of the American Discourse on Television and Children, 1950-1980, lays out the entire argument. Luke wrote:
Television historically has been positioned as principal cause of a host of individual problems and social evils: TV has been blamed for everything from falling literacy and numeracy standards, increased juvenile delinquency and promiscuity, and aggressive and violent individual behaviors to a decline in the nation's moral fabric, an increasing desensitization to crime and violence, and an increasing fearfulness of a world perceived as hostile and violent. (Luke 1)
Luke reported the results of a study that had two aims. The first was to determine whether watching TV displaced more intellectually demanding activities such as reading and therefore diminished or limited the rate of intellectual growth. The second was to determine whether the content -at the time, mainly white, middle-class characters -- alienated viewers who did not share those characteristics.
Luke's second concern is, these days, almost moot. There are abundant minority characters in most shows; there is abundant minority-based programming. There is even an Iranian character on a new Whoopi Goldberg show. This may not prove that color and culture lines are disappearing in television, but it suggests they might not be worth much ink right at the moment.
So does TV watching 'dumb down' the young viewers, cramping their abilities to carry out necessary intellectual activities in school, as Luke contends?
Luke reports a study of seventh and eight graders over a two-year period. Three groups were included: those who had never owned a TV, those who had always owned one, and those who had recently acquired one.
Luke reports that the study revealed a "striking negative association" between TV exposure and long-term reading growth" that occurred in all three groups. The researcher who conducted the study reported a 10% loss in reading scores for all three groups over a two-year period.
Worse still, the students identified with lower general ability and reading scores than the rest of the group showed a drop in both measurements, not just reading scores. Further, their gains in the next two years lagged behind those of the middle- and high-ability students, leading to the conclusion that if TV watching is damaging to middle- and high-ability students, it is even more damaging to those with lesser abilities. (Luke 13)
Even The Museum of Broadcast Communications has asked, and of course tried to answer positively, questions regarding the impact of TV watching on the academic performance of children. The organization poses this question: "...does television mesmerize attention, promote passive or overstimulated children, while wrecking creativity and imagination?" (Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site)
Predictably, the article fails to answer its own question. Rather, the article veers off into examining theories of active vs. passive TV viewing, and the link between attention and comprehension. The Museum reports that:
Attention to television is fragmentary before the age of two; visual attention increases during the preschool years, with a major shift in amount and pattern of attention occurring between 24 and 30 months. Frequently beginning around the age of eight, visual attention to TV decreases (presumably as the decoding of television becomes routine), and the attention pattern begins to resemble that of an adult. (Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site)
Still, they investigated further, and found that:
comprehension is a function of both cognitive development and experience. Younger children have difficulty with a number of tasks involved in understanding television programs: separating central from peripheral content, comprehending the sequence of events, recalling events and segments, and understanding causation. As well, they find it difficult to complete such inferential tasks as understanding intersections of motivation, action, and consequence, or evaluating the "reality" of programs and characters. (Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site)
Fine. The museum has developed information concerning how well one comprehends what is on television. But that fails to address whether spending all that time comprehending television (whether one is a child or an adult) is detrimental to intellectual pursuits of other sorts, such as reading, analytical abilities and so on.
Fortunately, other research does. "Pediatricians have to stop denying the influence of media on patients," said Victor Strasburger, M.D., FAAP, professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. He added, in an American Academy of Pediatrics article, that the media -- including television, has an impact on almost every area of public health concern, including violence, sex, drugs and academic performance in school. (AAP Web site)
More than that, other research supports the contention that paying good attention to television decreases the ability of viewers to engage their intellect in more intellectual or ability-based pursuits, such as reading, writing, playing games that require thought rather than simple reaction (such as so many computer games) or memorization or 'luck,' as do so many TV 'game' shows.
In an article titled "The Effects of Television Viewing," the Web site familyeducation.com points out, again, the well-accepted viewpoint concerning TV watching and academic performance.
Many recent studies indicate that excessive television viewing may have a detrimental effect on learning and school performance. The hours spent viewing television interfere with homework and limit the time available for other ways of learning. (Familyeducation Web site)
It isn't difficult to do the math and see how that would be almost inevitable. The article says American children view an average of three to five hours of television every day. Research indicates that TV viewing may be linked to violence and aggression, precocious sexuality, use of drugs or alcohol, and, of course, poor academic performance.
And that doesn't even take into account the other contributions TV watching may make, indirectly, to poor school performance. The same Web site reports that the average child sees more than 20,000 commercials a year, mainly for heavily sugared products, such as candy and pre-sweetened cereals. Not only can this skew a child's beliefs about what is appropriate food; if the child is permitted to indulge in those foods, he or she could also reap the education-affecting disorders of ADHD and the socially deadly problem of obesity. (Family Education Web site)
The connection between childhood obesity, TV watching and poor academic performance is beyond the scope of this report, and perhaps needs to be considered by someone. Still, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out that at least some obese children will find that social ostracism affects their ability to concentrate in school or participate in school activities fully. The Greeks considered physical education an important part of any citizen's preparation for life; so, nominally, do we.)
While both medical and academic researchers have tackled the problem of TV and academic performance, commentators on the American scene, and respected journalists, have developed persuasive anecdotal evidence as well that TV…